Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The magic has come back

Here is one artifact of the development process that is a real curiosity. After our first meeting with David Fickling, back in mid-2003, we knew that Mirabilis couldn't just be the Dinotopia-style art book we originally intended. In short, we needed a story. But I didn't recognize that twinkle in David's eye as the first glimmerings of the DFC - I thought it was just a fond memory of lunch. So I started to shape the story as a prose novel.

I don't think it would have worked. A setting that is rich in all kinds of fantasy elements, many of which you want to flick past the reader while something else is going on, cries out to be treated visually. Also, our idea was to have fun creating this thing together - going off on my own for a few months to crank out a 50,000 word novel didn't strike me as very appealing. I've written over two million words of fiction in my time (that's just the published work) so the prospect of describing yet another sunrise or another person walking across a room has me as wild-eyed as Kirk Douglas after the fourth espresso.

Some of it was useful, though. While writing prose you can play around with scenes quite cheaply. If something isn't working, you throw it away and all it cost you was a few hours. Sometimes you decide that what you've written did happen but the reader doesn't need to see it. Those scenes can be the most useful of all.

This, then, was the origin of Jack's duel scene at the start of the book. For some reason I marked it as Chapter Two - I'm not sure what was to go before it, as I doubt if I intended to start with the New Year's Eve ball. Jack was called Will in the first version, but that was changed when David pointed out it was the name of the hero in the Dark Materials books. I prefer Jack.

The whole chapter is 3407 words long. To spare you that (and another long post on this blog) here's the final bit where Jack first sees the Kind Gentleman. It's a little different from the scene in the comic - as you'll see:
As the sky paled to grey, patches of high cloud were revealed like charcoal smears. Jack looked up and for a moment found his gaze lingering on a glittering pinpoint high up in the heavens. The stars had faded, and Venus would have been close to the horizon rather than directly overhead. Absently Jack noted that the point was green. He focused on it, bringing all his thoughts in to a single intense glow like that pinpoint of green light, and waited.
Over the wall of the gardens he heard the church bell of St Mary’s on Kew Green striking the hour. Gerard and the other second raised their handkerchiefs. They had agreed that the signal to fire would be the stroke of eight o’clock.
Jack allowed his arm to come down in an arc, straightening with an action like the unwinding of a clockwork mechanism, until his pistol was levelled directly at McNab.
It’s now, he thought. Do it! Pull the trigger!
Under a heavy lid of cloud, a line of white gold flared along the horizon. The sun rose, catching in the hothouse glass behind McNab so that every pane blazed with light. It was dazzling, as though the entire building was suddenly an inferno, a cathedral of the dawn. Jack squinted, trying to make out the silhouette of his opponent against the glare.
He raised his left hand, shielding his face, but the glow only grew brighter. The sunlight rekindled the ache behind his eyes and he felt bile rise into his mouth. Suddenly his vision telescoped, images blurring and distorting and flying past him. He felt as though he had been wrenched out of the world and left drifting. He saw the nearest window of the hothouse as if he were floating right in front of it. He could make out the pock-marked black enamel on the iron girders, the beads of condensation on the inside of the glass, the palm fronds stirring in the thick hot air within.
Shadows moved there, sending tiny refracted images dancing in the water droplets. A group of figures who appeared in miniature a thousand times, inverted as if each droplet were a microscope lens. They drew slowly nearer out of the glass-caged jungle until they were standing on the other side of the window – just a few feet away, it seemed. Jack felt a tingling of fine hairs all across his neck and arms.
A hand was raised and Jack distinctly heard the loud squeak as the hand wiped the condensation from the glass. Then he was looking right into a dozen white, almond-shaped faces – startlingly sharp and real and vivid against the backdrop of tropical foliage. They wore clothes finer than Jack had ever seen. There were silver clasps and rubies at their throats, and azure diadems that bound long hair the colour of brushed white gold.
The faces looked out into the dawn light at Jack, and at each other, and they smiled, cruel as cats. He felt as though he were a specimen they were examining as they peered down from their magnificent world of vibrant colour into a drab white dish of hoarfrost and sluggish life.
The leader of the group pressed close to the glass and, as he met Jack’s gaze, his smile broadened until it was the impossible painted smile of a clown. He took a pinch of snuff from an ivory box. Jack noticed his nostrils suck and flare as he breathed it in. His grey eyes sparkled, narrowing with quickened interest, and now Jack saw that they were slit eyes, like a snake’s.
He spoke two words. Words that Jack heard as clearly as if they had been hissed right in his ear. Two words that fell and rippled into reality like stones flung into a pond:
“We’re back.”
Jack’s senses rushed back into his body. He was aware of the last stroke of eight hanging in the air and felt a stab of panic. He hadn’t taken his shot – but there was still time. Thrusting out his pistol in the direction of both McNab and the white-faced figures in the hothouse, he screwed up his eyes and fired.
There was no recoil, no crack of gunfire. Jack opened one eye. He looked at the pistol with a puzzled scowl. It began to shake violently and emit a furious whine. He heard the spectators shouting something, but all his attention was focussed on the pistol which was now vibrating so strongly in his hand that it was hard to hold onto it. The whine grew louder and lower in tone and, as it reached a crescendo, to Jack’s astonishment a huge hornet pushed itself out of the barrel and hung quivering on the air.
The hornet swivelled – a compass needle jumping to the north set by McNab. Drawing a bead on him, it flashed forward through the air.
McNab saw it and reacted in shock, jerking his hand up and shooting not at Jack but at the hornet that was streaking towards him.
Jack saw a flash and had time to register a blurred projectile whistling through the still air. It struck him across the eyes and there was a blinding stab of pain followed by absolute darkness

It was only as he fell that he heard the whipcrack of McNab’s pistol shot. But in the yawning pit of unconsciousness there were no thoughts.

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